Ennio Morricone on Once Upon a Time in America

An Interview with Ennio Morricone by Marco Werba © 1985
Originally Published in CinemaScore #13/14,1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson

ennio_morriconeEnnio Morricone’s association with filmmaker Sergio Leone goes back to 1964 when he wrote the groundbreaking music for Leone’s equally groundbreaking western, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Leone’s film, and Morricone’s eclectic music, paved the way for the unique style of Italian westerns which has been oft imitated. Morricone has written the music for all of Leone’s subsequent films, the most recent being the magnificent gangster epic, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, a violent yet brilliantly moving story of friends caught up in the midst of the violence around him. Morricone’s music matches the epic quality of the film and remains one of his finest scores of recent years. Interviewed for CinemaScore, Morricone described his approach to scoring this film. – Randall D. Larson

What was your working arrangement with Leone on this film? Did you score to specifically timed scenes or did you write your music and afterwards have it inserted into the films where appropriate?
Leone and I had been discussing the themes and the music we wanted to use for seven years before filming actually started, and we had recorded some of them. He shot the different sequences to some of this music, the last theme he chose being “Deborah.” After the film was edited we saw it again and took the timings for the final recording. In one or two moments the original recording was used, but on the soundtrack album there is only the final recording done after the movie was finished. That was not because the first one wasn’t good, just that we decided to use only the new recording for the album.

Speaking of “Deborah’s Theme”, a theme that is full of rests and waitings, what meaning does it have in relation to the movie, if we compare it to Deborah’s character?
It is not so much related to Deborah’s character as it is to the movie as a whole. It’s a deep story, and the dialog often has the many pauses and slow rhythms that Leone loves to use. This time I wanted to work with that silence, to make it a musical rest, making the meaning of the music stronger.

The film takes place during the 1920s. Did this give you any restrictions, such as having to write music in a 1920s style or use period music, like “Amapola”?
The historical period was not a problem, simply because it is not something I have to invent. If I have to write a “Fox Trot” of the period, I don’t have to worry about the composition; I am more concerned about the performance during the recording session. The song, “Amapola”, was used because it was necessary to give an indication of the period. But I did not write the music the same way it was arranged in that period, I gave it a different sentiment; sweeter and more nostalgic. The music that is heard in the film, and on the record, does not change orchestration and mood throughout the picture; and in that sense it is not strictly connected to the period. I used some historical pieces only because I had to imitate period music.

How did you approach the overall scoring of this film, with its many themes, orchestrations and the prominent use of the pan flute?
I usually write the melody first, and then a harmonic structure, but sometimes I develop them together. The choice of the pan flute wasn’t mine. The scriptwriter wanted to have someone playing that instrument. This way, of course, it is a theme that comes out of reality (as in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, where a character plays the harmonica). I called Gheorghe Zamfir because he is a good performer on that instrument.

Your use of voice (as with Edda here and in earlier films) is remarkable and distinctive. What have you tried to achieve, musically, in combining it with the orchestra?
If I had not met Edda dell Orso, I probably wouldn’t write for voice. I can’t write for a person who does not exist. She exists, she has that talent that everyone sees in her, so I wrote for her. The reason she became important is due a little to Leone’s movies, and a little to what I wrote, but most of all to the incredible personality that she has in her job. She should work more than she does, but in Italy possibilities are limited. I have always loved human voice (not only Edda’s), and I think the human voice has more possibilities than any other instrument. The work I did with Edda was a great experience for me.

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